The Zeitgeist Refracted: 2017 in SF and Fantastika

At the close of a chaotic, tumultuous, challenging year such as 2017 has been, we might take solace and direction, enlightenment and cautions from the fantastical literature that year has produced. Although the books of 2017 were all, of course, written at some indefinite date before the fateful year ever dawned, the best of them should nonetheless resonate with the present. On the one hand, science fiction derives its ear-to-the-ground quality because its writers are plugged into the zeitgeist, alert to cutting-edge technology and science, and heirs to a sophisticated suite of speculative tools. Meanwhile, writers of fantasy and horror, looking inward, are busy along other equally sensitive vectors: empathetically channeling psychic vibes and Jungian archetypes, while charting the unspoken consensual emotional landscapes of the contemporary period.

If indeed our writers of fantastika function as Cassandras, psychopomps, Virgils, and coal mine canaries, then this selection of six prominent titles should limn our current situation rather informatively.

Let’s start with some science-fictional readings.


If you are ready for a trenchant top-to-bottom analysis of the fix we’re in today, followed by a teardown and rebuild of our society along fresh lines designed by one of science fiction’s smartest and hippest writers, then you should start your sounding of the year in SF with Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.

The book opens at an unspecified near-future date in which many of our current trends have become harsher and more undeniable. Perhaps the Prime Mover of the tale is the issue of income inequality (the one-percenters are called “zottas”), which has kept the majority of average citizens in a state of perpetual insecurity and anxiety. As smart fabricators eliminate many jobs, the typical worker becomes disposable. But what’s new in this scenario is the “walkaway” phenomenon: people just dropping their tools, their whole lives, in situ and hitting the road to found and join new spontaneous communities of like-minded rebels in search of a truer lifestyle. The walkaways have a complete ethos, philosophy and economy laterally displaced from the “default” world.

Our initial spotlight reveals three young folks on the verge of becoming walkaways: Hubert Etcetera, Seth and Natalie. Natalie hails from the zotta class, and her controlling father will eventually assume the role of chief villain. But at the outset we follow the trio as they haltingly tune in, turn on, and drop out. When they fully commit, their initial guide to the shifting, multiplex world of the walkaways is a fascinating and smart woman named Limpopo. The narrative begins to shift among several viewpoints, finally settling on the drama between Natalie — now dubbed “Iceweasel” — and her father. Over the span of several years, communities will live and die, mini-wars will erupt, economies will collapse, and somewhere in the mix the secret to life after corporeal death will be discovered.

Doctorow’s book is the kind of fully realized blueprint for “the first days of a better nation” that the genre has fostered since its foundations, from Wright’s Islandia up to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Our author is meticulous in considering how his distributed, self-emergent polity would actually work, giving us detailed descriptions of love, labor, leisure, and language among the self-exiled. (“It was like arguing with a chatbot whose Markov chains were entangled in the paternalistic argot of prison wardens and unlicensed daycare operators.”) This need for speccing out his quasi-utopia necessitates lots of dialectical dialogue. Plenty of vigorous stuff happens in the novel, but the plotting is overshadowed, not unpleasantly, by debating and explaining, which Doctorow always frames in a juicy and authentic fashion. His main characters and all the subsidiary ones display depth and unpredictable passions, and even Jacob Redwater, Iceweasel’s malign dad, is granted a certain sympathy and moral ambiguity.

Doctorow’s community — which looks to have the potential to actually inspire real-world followers — benefits from the high-tech gizmos Doctorow convincingly and gleefully postulates. But its real allure derives from the fact that it could be instantiated even with no technology at all. There’s a certain primal structure and ambiance to the whole operation, reflected in the raunchy tribal intermingling of its protagonists.

This is surely the most fully imagined version of the themes that Doctorow has been juggling since the start of his career: freedom through new philosophies and new technologies, and the rational maintenance of civilization in the face of archaic vices.

When one considers that 2017 also saw the publication of three other novels of similar heft and scope and purpose — Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas — then the message that near-future SF seems to be delivering is one that assures us change for the better is possible — but only when it starts from within.

In this year of the #MeToo phenomenon, no SF novel could be more timely or speak more to such matters than John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other. Its premise, in ridiculously reductionistic terms? “Matriarchy on the Moon.” Kessel has been tantalizing his audience with pendants from this novel for years now, and the composite unified whole, which parses many other hot-button topics as well, is even grander than the pieces.

In the middle of the twenty-second century, Earth’s satellite is home to twenty-seven different settlements, aggregating a population of 3 million plus. Our tale will focus on two venues: Persepolis, the biggest, most thriving and most dominant city, founded along lines of liberal Iranian secularism; and the Society of Friends, the matriarchy alluded to above. Each of these cultures is fleshed out in grand and beautiful and startling detail. But it is the Society of Friends that receives the bulk of Kessel’s speculative vigor and innovative insights. SF has long had a dalliance with matriarchies, from early male-centric works like L. Sprague de Camp’s Rogue Queen and Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? to more feminist efforts such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Kessel’s contribution to this lineage is masterful, sensitive and unique. The dense tapestry he weaves of life in the Society is a blend of rationality and emotion, improvements and diminishments, triumphs and failures. There is nothing one-dimensional about the Society or its opponents. And indeed, aside from the various personal arcs of the protagonists, the main thrust of the novel is the dialectical struggle between the Society and its rivals. It is not too far-fetched to cast the Society as a kind of humanist North Korea in its isolation and ideological purity: yet another mirror to one of our current dilemmas.

Our main characters are Erno, who was once a citizen of the Society until his exile to Persepolis; and the team of Mira and Carey, two members of the matriarchy. Carey is the highest-status male in the Society, but he will run up against the limitations of that niche, and also a buried disaster in his past, a feature which allows Kessel to ring in some stirring super-science. Bopping gracefully back and forth between the venues, eventually merging the separate threads, Kessel maintains a vibrant plot while at the same time — like Doctorow — opening up his narrative to witty, earnest, dramatic swaths of dialogue. This kind of Shavian or Wellsian explication of themes through long intellectual conversations is a welcome revival of something SF used once to do so well, before action sequences came to dominate. We are reputedly “the literature of ideas,” after all.

With echoes of everyone from Heinlein to John Varley, Thomas Disch to John Crowley (the latter’s novella “In Blue,” which depicts another group of utopian zealots in terms of equal estrangement, is particularly relevant), The Moon and the Other shows us that our current turmoil is a manifestation of humanity’s ceaseless churning through the notional space of all interpersonal possibilities.


Aside from being a stellar debut novel, Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is also a roadmap for our contemporary world in terms of outlining how a culture must foster a greater sense of vision and purpose amidst the day-to-day demands and exigencies of survival.

Lostetter’s choice of the grand old trope of a multigenerational voyage on a self-sustaining starship that is its own small, sometimes incestuous and tightly boundaried world is a perfect metaphor for much of our current scenario. As all the different strains and clans of humanity struggle to accommodate each other on Starship Earth in the year 2017, we face many of the same problems and potentials as Lostetter’s explorers en route to the mysterious solar system of LQ Pyxidis. But what those fictional citizens have that we do not enjoy is a sense of shared unity and purpose. And when at one point that unifying gestalt is shattered, we see the tragic consequences vividly.

Lostetter’s future, which begins just around the corner in 2088 and extends in quasi-Stapledonian fashion to the year 4574, is a place where our species has passed successfully through all our immediate quandaries. Enjoying a stable, peaceful, prosperous environment, this world can afford to react generously to the discovery of a very strange stellar object many light years away. Nine vast ships are constructed over decades, each with a specific function. Together the convoy, carrying scores of thousands of humans, will head toward LQ Pyxidis to discover what makes it so anomalous, then journey back to Earth to report. The travelers are selected for their innate stability and genetic talents. Then, a twist: conventional reproduction will not be allowed over the generations in transit. Rather, this initial perfect crew will be cloned and recloned, ensuring ultimate competency.

But as Lostetter reveals in a masterful sequence of dramatic vignettes that hopscotch blithely across the decades, human variability cannot be totally constrained or predicted. Her multiple lineages throw out sports and rebels, both stymieing and saving the expedition from its many unforeseen circumstances. About halfway through the narrative, our convoy reaches its destination. The enigmas there are vast and intriguing, potentially profitable for all mankind. Having learned all they can, long out of contact with Earth, they start out on the return journey. Here is where that aforementioned breakdown of commonality intervenes and is mastered, not without misunderstandings, disaster, and sacrifice. Readers of Carter Scholz’s recent novella “Gypsy” might feel familiar tremors in this section.

The final third of the book presents the homecoming of the explorers, who find the terrestrial situation utterly and frustratingly unpredictable. Lostetter does not fail to stick her landing, offering us a kind of Eloi-and-Morlocks setup that is ultimately resolved resourcefully by the ingenious explorers.

My reference to The Time Machine is meant to convey some of the many classical frissons that Lostetter incorporates into her work. Her style and approach is at once extremely old-school and totally modern. It is not unthinkable to imagine John W. Campbell serializing this book in the pages of Astounding magazine. With a fragrance of Arthur C. Clarke and even of pre-Campbellian pulpsters like Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, her book joins the slims ranks occupied by Gregory Benford and Stephen Baxter: hardcore science fiction at once old and new, analogous to some young chanteuse working her way through the Great American Songbook.


Moving from the particle-collider granularity of SF to the numinous, nebulous specters evoked by fantasy and horror, we can take a tranche across the whole wide spectrum of the Weird by delving into the superior anthology Shadows and Tall Trees 7, helmed by the capable and knowledgeable Michael Kelly. This book finds a host of names famous — Brian Evenson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mary Rickert, Conrad Williams, Simon Strantzas — and names less well known, all breasting the breakers of anxiety, fear, doubt and failure of faith that beset us these days. Following in the footsteps of M. R. James and Shirley Jackson, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Robert Aickman, these authors zero in on the particulars of individual lives gone askew as a means of symbolizing larger destabilizing forces wreaking their subterranean evils. While not every piece extrudes feelers from the microcosmic to the macroscosmic, enough of them do so to make the volume a barometer of our trepidations and neuroses.

The table of contents leads off strongly with Brian Evenson’s “Line of Sight.” A director and his cinematographer, going over the final cut of their nearly finished film, discern accidentally revealed seams in reality that lead — where? Evenson implicitly asks if our obsession with media carries us willy-nilly to some bad places.

“Shell Baby” by V. H. Leslie is the first of several tales that focus on children in such a manner as to reveal that we are all fearful we have given birth to a new generation that is pure Midwich Cuckoos. Leslie plants a distraught woman in a cottage by the shore, and has her discover a bit of organic living marine wrack that she fosters lovingly into a pure monstrosity. Alliances with Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne are fruitful. Strantzas gives us the tale of a widow, Heike, who stumbles upon an enigmatic creature she names Baum growing “In the Tall Grass.” Baum eventually becomes the master, not the “son.” Robert Shearman discloses an awful truth in “The Swimming Pool Party.” Not all are children are lovable or evoke tender feelings. A mother is glad to be shut of her lackluster son, Max, at the creepy party of the title, but then is overwhelmed by a desire to conceive something even more dire. Coming at the matter from the filial point of view, Christopher Slatsky, in “Engines of the Ocean,” charts the siren call of a dead father to his adult daughter.

Is consumerism the ruin of our civilization? In “Curb Day,” Rebecca Kuder deliciously inverts the equation, thereby highlighting the more familiar problem, as she details a society where massive mandated spurts of disinheriting are the rigorous hurdle. Is the past a dead anchor around our necks, preventing us from solving our problems? That’s the theme of Conrad Williams’s “The Closure,” which finds a drifter drawn back mysteriously to the town of his youth. But maybe, paradoxically and conversely, the problem is that we have no roots, no traditions, and do not honor our heritage. In such a case, limned by Steve Rasnic Tem in “The Erased,” our hapless hero finds all his touchstones vanishing until he lives in a featureless waste.

There is really not one ineffective or ungainly story in this whole book, whose thought-provoking contents force us to confront face-to-face the many bedevilements we daily tamp guiltily down, making us more and more ill the longer they are ignored.


In contrast to his quiet-voiced, postmodern, multivalent, sometimes obscurantist peers in the Weird confraternity, those aficionados of chiaroscuro and indeterminacy who are featured in Shadows and Tall Trees 7, Joe Hill is a Godzilla of fantastical prose who launches in-your-face assaults on reality, city-stomping monsters whose lineaments are hewn in granite. In other words, he’s his dad’s boy, Dad being Stephen King. Nonetheless, the straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall derangements contained in the four novellas from Strange Weather offer just as much of a CAT scan of our early-twenty-first-century tsuris as any subtle allegory, and prove a refreshing change of pace from more delicate creations. Sometimes a good kick in the pants is preferable to a cobweb draped gently across the cheek.

“Snapshot” chronicles, mainly, a short interval in the life of thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione, bright, overweight loner, during a time when he encountered the Polaroid Man, a passing stranger possessed of an evil device, disguised as a simple camera, which sucks out the memories of those caught in its lens. The camera has worked its evil on Mike’s neighbor, old lady Beukes, who seems to be suffering from dementia but is in reality having her soul stolen in bits and pieces. It’s up to Mike, upon realizing the truth of the matter, to stop the assaults and also to protect himself from a similar fate. The tale achieves a Bradburyian level of creepy suspense, and aligns somewhat with Jeffrey Ford’s classic The Shadow Year.

Hill’s handling of Mike is excellent, building a portrait of an utterly believable kid, neither saint nor sinner. His heroism mixed with selfishness, Mike ultimately does save the day, although without a full victory. Hill’s deft evocation of 1988 suburbia adds to the reading pleasure. But it’s in the extra steps that his talent shines. Anyone else would have concluded the story with Mike’s disposal of the Polaroid Man. But Hill continues the tale with the repercussions of the event, well into Mike’s adulthood.

“Loaded” has no fantastical apparatus but is a convoluted and bloody tragedy centered around guns and gun lust, as well as lust of a more carnal nature. Our main man, security guard Kellaway, is no cardboard NRA poster child but rather a mix of damaged integrity and fatal narcissism, all too convincing. Left to indulge his fantasies, he might never have exploded. Pushed too far, he fractures into deadly shrapnel that takes down the innocents in his path.

The once-famous career of Charles Fort, who collected and sought to allusively explain various anomalous phenomena, previously intrigued many SF writers, such as Heinlein and Eric Frank Russell. Hill gives Fortean oddities a fresh run in “Aloft.” A confused young man named Aubrey is about to reluctantly parachute out of a plane for “fun.” He and his minder jump and after just a short drop land upon a solid albeit cushiony cloud. The expert is blown off the cloud by a wind, leaving Aubrey stranded upon an impossible sky island. What follows — interspersed with relevant flashbacks to Aubrey’s past love life — is a kind of David Lindsay odyssey through the reality of the uncanny cloud as it interfaces with Aubrey’s psyche. Our incompetent hero eventually muscles through to inner growth, awareness and an epiphany that’s anything but cloudy.

Finally, “Rain” is the account of the time when, due to terrorist intervention, it becomes common for hails of deadly needles to fall from the sky — “a furious rattling . . . like a thousand thumbtacks being poured into a steel bucket” — and kill exposed people across the breadth of Colorado, then elsewhere. Our narrator of this disaster is one Honeysuckle Speck, a kind of naive savant who, having lost her girlfriend Yolanda in the initial slaughter, sets out on a dangerous nigh-postapocalyptic journey to inform Yolanda’s family of her death. The tale reads like a hybrid between the lawnmower odyssey detailed in David Lynch’s film The Straight Story and The Day of the Triffids.

Joe Hill’s fiction arises squarely out of his bodily distress engendered by the shared meal of contaminated fast food that he and the rest of us insist on stuffing ourselves with.

The Nordic explosion in quality crime fiction has been matched by a smaller but significant boom in Nordic Weird fiction, with writers such as Leena Krohn leaping to mind. (In SF, the career of Hannu Rajaniemi, also Finnish, is exemplary.) Karin Tidbeck, a Swede, has emerged as one of the paramount practitioners in this unreal mode, based solely on her impressive story collection, Jagannath. Now, with her first novel, Amatka, she confirms that status.

It’s hard to characterize Tidbeck’s debut precisely as either SF or Fantasy/Horror, which is why hybrid categories such as Slipstream and New Weird are so convenient. (If China Miéville didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.) But I include Amatka here at the end among the supernatural and supranormal books since the ultimate effect upon readers is to transport them to an oneiric place where the quotidian mingles with the ineffable. At first and on the surface a kind of Ruritanian novel, like Le Guin’s Malafrena or Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, the book morphs into something closer to Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

We begin with the bureaucrat named Vanja, a young woman, introverted and somewhat querulous but still perceptive, smart, and dedicated, albeit with some doubts about her path. She is traveling from her home community of Essre to the cousin community of Amatka. Her banal assignment is to survey the hygiene habits of the Amatka peoples to see if they could benefit from the introduction of new cleansing and grooming products.

Gradually the reader discerns the tenor of these two communities, or communes. They feature a way of life akin to that in the Soviet empire at its height. Proletarian, mass-think, self-sacrifice, self-censorship, mysterious ukases handed down from on high. Tidbeck masterfully constructs the fetid, constrained expectations and daily grind of such a system.

Brisk steps approached from the stairs that led to the offices. A courier in gray overalls and tightly braided hair shot around the corner and snapped to attention in front of Varna.

“Good morning!” she blurted. “I am here to announce that the committee has instituted an additional leisure night! Every Thirday [sic] night at eighteen o’clock all citizens will attend their respective leisure center to partake in delightful games, quizzes, and group conversations! Hooray for Amatka’s commune!”

After enough of this, one begins to expect to read a book resembling Kurosawa’s film Ikiru, about a crisis of conscience experienced by a drone, resulting in some small spiritual transfiguration.

But step by sly step, Tidbeck reveals something much stranger. For it turns out that these humans inhabit a colony world, lost to contact with their origins. And every tangible thing in their lives, from pencils to buildings (save for a few ancient scraps of “real paper” and such), is fashioned out of the native quasi-sentient Urschleim. The recalcitrant alien stuff is molded into forms and must be maintained by constant verbal and textual “marking” and by mental apprehensions, or right-think. Otherwise it might shift or dissolve back into dangerous “gloop.”

This entropic riff harks to such classic instances as the moment in Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint when a hot dog stand disappears, to be replaced by a scrap of paper bearing that legend. It’s a pure incarnation of the quantum notion that the observer can cause collapse or resolution of a multivalent set of states into a single condition. The inhabitants of this world constantly shore up their very civilization with nervous reassurances. I hardly need to point out parallels to our own incessantly crumbling set of institutions and planetary ecosystems, which we faithfully insist are just fine.

Vanja labors heroically to fit into Amatka’s system and do her job. She falls in love with one of her roommates, Nina, and shares friendship with the other two, Ulla and Lars. She charts the shampooing habits of mushroom farmers. But eventually her curiosity and innate dissatisfactions get the better of her. She takes up with a subversive librarian, begins to wander outside the city limits where the raw power of the planet can be sensed. Ultimately she learns of the existence of a group of exiles led by a famous woman poet. They have ceased to fight the new world and given themselves over to it, transcending their humanity. And soon they will return to conquer Amatka.

The book’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest ending is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. Although Vanja is left, like Smoky Barnable in Crowley’s Little, Big, on the threshold of a celestial paradise that others can easily attain, she is borne up by a freely given comradeship that she has been searching for all her life.

Tidbeck’s novel shows us a world where the inhabitants exhaust themselves trying to impose their perceptions on the world, and where any kind of authentic fellow feeling is missing, with false camaraderie enforced artificially. They have lost the Tao, abandoned the Path, forgot the Teachings.

Apply these literary lessons to our current scene as you see fit.

The post The Zeitgeist Refracted: 2017 in SF and Fantastika appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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